'Into the Badlands': Meet the New Dystopian Kung-Fu Plantation Western

AMC's latest would-be hit isn't a genre show — it's 'every' genre show rolled into one

Daniel Wu, center, in 'Into the Badlands.' Credit: James Minchin III/AMC

Kung-Fu and the Western: always an unkillable combination. Into the Badlands, AMC's post-apocalyptic martial-arts thriller set in the deep South — or what's left of it after civilization collpases — kicks off with a bang: Mystery man Daniel Wu rides in on his motorcycle wearing a red leather trench coat, shades and a ceremonial sword. Before he fights, he makes a point of removing the blade, because he prefers to handle his blood baths with his fists. (Wu is a veteran of Hong Kong action flicks like 2012's Tai Chi Zero; one of the fight directors is Master Dee Dee from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Kill Bill movies.) Many corpses later, someone finally gets around to asking who the hell he is: "Got a name? You just show up, kill people and leave?"

The guy's name is Sunny, not the most terrifying name in the world, and he's a Clipper — a professional killer with more than 400 tattoos to mark his ever-increasing body count. Loosely based on a 16th-century Chinese tale, Journey to the West, about the adventures of a wandering Buddhist monk, Badlands conjures the ghost of Kung Fu, the classic Seventies yarn with David Carradine roaming the Wild West seeking enlightenment and kicking ass. Throw in some Game of Thrones intrigue, loads of Django Unchained Civil War plantation ambience, the spirit of Bruce Lee and the bleak vibe of The Walking Dead, and you've got Badlands.

The last remnants of known civilization are controlled by evil barons like Sunny's master, Quinn, the marvelous Marton Csokas. With his quasi-Amish beard and starched collars, the baron rules his opium empire while playing old blues records on the Victrola in his mansion, living large on a plantation surrounded by poppy fields. "People once thought there's a Holy Book," he proclaims in his Colonel Sanders drawl to his private army. "They believed it held the answers from a god that would save them. Boys, there is no god in the Badlands."

He controls the poppy supply; the Widow, played by Emily Beecham, controls the oil, along with her all-girl army of Butterflies. She's the liveliest villain in the tale — think Mad Men's Christina Hendricks in full-on Marilyn mode, except Joan Holloway Harris never got to enjoy the pleasure of separating the McCann Erickson creeps' skulls from their shoulders. Ally Ioannides is her deadliest protogree Tilda, the Butterfly warrior as a punk rock Arya.

It was the Baron who found Sunny as a child, shivering and abandoned, and trained him as a Clipper; he is now his bloodiest enforcer, with the tattoos to prove it. "No parents, no name, no past," the Baron says. "I figured if the Badlands hadn't killed him, there must be a strength inside him." (This is the kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland that has motorcycles, but not guns, which is convenient for professionals who specialize in kicking hombres in the face.) When a woman in his bed purrs, "I know buried under all this ink is a good man," Sunny just mutters, "You're wrong." But he's starting to wonder if there's a better way somewhere else. And on Into the Badlands, the tough question is who he'll have to kill to get there.